September 1st, 2010
Steppe Riders Camp, south of Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
Transcribed from written journal

I’m writing this by candlelight in a Mongolian ger camp. With no electricity I’ll be writing longhand for nearly a month. It’s a novelty now, but I expect that to wear off before I finish this entry.

We both had a remarkably good night’s sleep on the train, and woke up at a quarter to eleven. We didn’t get to sleep until about two; the train took longer to get through customs than expected, and there’s no point going to sleep if you’re just going to get woken up for your passport.

DSCN4382

The landscape on the Mongolian side of the border was a beautiful expanse of arid plains, unsullied by the mines, factories and plants that dot the Chinese side of the Gobi. We ate a late breakfast in the dining car, watching gers and eagles and nomads on horses pass us by.

DSCN4381

When I stuck my head out the window in the hallway outside our cabin, the air was clean and crisp and fresh – a far cry from the gritty smog of Beijing.

DSCN4367

We arrived in Ulaan Baatar with nothing more than a few phone numbers and a sketch map to the Legend Tour office. We hailed one of the taxis outside the train station to take us to the Russian embassy, but realised we didn’t have any Mongolian currency. The taxi driver was happy to take us to a bank, where we switched over our Chinese yuan. He then charged us 50,000 Mongolian togrog to take us to the Russian embassy. I later learned that the Australian dollar fetches about 1200 togrog, and that a taxi across town should cost about 2000. Never ever ever go with one of the men who hang about the exits of airports, bus stations and train stations. We learned this long ago; I don’t know why we keep doing it. It’s xe.com’s fault, really; they have exchange rates for every backwater African and South Pacific currency, for metals and minerals, and even for currencies that don’t exist anymore, yet they don’t have Mongolian togrog, so we were flying blind. What gives?

From the Russian embassy we managed to find the Legend Tours office, more due to good luck than to the crappy map I’d copied down from their website. Legend Tours are a dubious tour company that claimed they could obtain Russian visas for us, even though that’s not supposed to be permitted outside your country of residence. If this fell through, we’d have to find a more boring way of getting to Europe.

Their office consisted of two poky little rooms in an otherwise unoccupied building. They seemed fairly legit, though and the woman behind the desk – who, judging from the business cards on display, comprises 50% of the compan’y staff – assured us we could have Russian visas by the 27th. We also booked Trans-Siberian tickets while we were there, all the way to Moscow, since you generally have to book in advance. A pleasant surprise was that a first-class berth to Moscow, when purchased in Mongolia, cost only $350 US – not much more than our Trans-Mongolian tickets, which covered less than a quarter of the distance the Trans-Siberian does. I really hope that was just a stroke of luck due to tariffs and international markets, and that come the 28th we won’t be sleeping on the floor of a boxcar.

After withdrawing some US dollars from a bank, we paid the woman and borrowed her phone to call Mendee. Mendee runs a company called Steppe Riders, based out of a yurt camp to the south of the city. I’d been talking to him by email over the last couple of weeks trying to organise some training. Plenty of tour companies organise guided treks, but as far as I know, Steppe Riders is the only one that offers “solo training” for people who want to buy horses and set off on their own. Chris and I fall into that category, although we’ve never ridden horses before. Mind you, I only had a cumulative total of about ten hours experience on a motorcycle before jumping on a dilapidated 1980 Minsk and riding from Saigon to Hanoi.

Mendee asked us when we wanted to begin our training, and I explained that we hadn’t organised anywhere to stay in Ulaan Baatar, and asked if we could sleep at his camp tonight and begin early the next morning. He said that was fine, and picked us up in his minivan about an hour later.

He was much younger than I expected (late 20’s, maybe?) but he seems friendly enough and his English is good. We picked up another camp employee, left the city, and arrived at the camp about an hour later. It’s a cluster of about eight or nine gers, and two outdoor toilets, set at the head of a small valley in some low hills. The landscape around here is all rolling green hills, mostly grass but with the occasional cluster of shrubs and bushes wherever there’s some shelter on the leeward side of a hill. We have a four-bed ger to ourselves, with some hard beds, bean-bag pillows, spider-infested blankets and a gravity-fed faucet and basin (which we emptied the reservoir for, since it was dripping). Oddly enough, I actually expect to be more comfortable when we’re camping.

DSCN4388

Also staying at the camp are a group of expats from Beijing: a Canadian couple, an American guy, and the American’s Chinese wife. We had some tea and then dinner with them. Mendee disappeared back into Ulaan Baatar before we could hammer out a plan with him, so I’m not sure what’s happening tomorrow. The expats leave on a four-day guided trek tomorrow morning. I hope they’re not going with Mendee, because he seems to be the only one with good English. Some of the other staff have passable English, but we’ll need a little more than that from somebody instructing us on how to ride a horse.

After sunset we went and sat on top of one of the hills and watched the stars come out. This is the first time since Australia that I’ve seen a clear night sky. Even in Yunnan and Sichuan it was usually overcast. Even this close to Ulaan Baatar, it’s far better than any night sky I’ve seen in Australia, including Collie. Chris said it rivalled Mornington.

Part of the reason we were sitting there appreciating the firmament and following the graceful arc of satellites was, of course, that we had no electricity. There’s not much to do except read or write, and even that’s a pain in the ass by torch or candlelight. I could gladly sit by a campfire for hours doing nothing, but the Steppe Riders camp doesn’t have one (and it’s amazing how much of a difference that makes, how less homely and welcoming a camp feels, something I’m sure we all noticed when the full-time fire ban went into effect at Collie). When we’re camping I intend to have a fire every night, if we can find the wood for it.

It’s interesting how, when you’re in an environment like this, night and day make an enormous difference. When we were watching Ulaan Baatar approach from the train window this afternoon, I didn’t feel apprehensive at all. I felt perfectly comfortable. I compared that with how I felt striking out into China on the sleeper bus back in July. The difference, of course, was night and day. Foreing lands always seem much more familiar and managable in the sunlight. I feel slightly more out of my element now that the sun has gone down, and I’m about to crawl into my spidery bed, but I’m sure I’ll be 100% excited and optimistic again in the morning.

Nighttime is also boring, which is why I’m blabbering on, because as soon as I’m done I’ll just brush my teeth and go to bed. Don’t give me any guff about how being separated from our laptops will allow me and Chris to “rediscover the lost art of conversation.” We’re best friends and we’ve been together 24/7 for the last four months. We have little to discuss.

Well. That’s all I can think of. Time for bed, at… 10.25 pm. I guess we’ll have to adjust our sleep cycles to more closely match the night.

Advertisements